NFL Nation: AFC scenarios 2012

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Steelers in 2012.

Dream scenario (13-3): Losing a handful of veterans this offseason won't impact the Steelers' play on the field. The Steelers show last year's division champion (the Ravens) and the division's upstart team (the Bengals) that they still own the division as long as Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and the defense is at full strength. A return trip to the Super Bowl would follow their pattern (Pittsburgh went in the 2008 and 2010 seasons).

Roethlisberger thrives in Todd Haley's offense much like Kurt Warner did. The biggest change is a quicker release, which will allow Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to show off their elusiveness and make yards after the catch. The offensive line becomes the best in the AFC North with center Maurkice Pouncey staying healthy, right tackle Marcus Gilbert continuing to develop, and rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams living up to expectations.

The Steelers' pass rush is even stronger this season because James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will be on the field together for more than a handful of games this year. The run defense is bolstered by the return of nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is able to start the season despite having knee surgery in January. The combination of Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester make up for the loss of inside linebacker James Farrior.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Pittsburgh underestimates the loss of leadership after parting ways with Farrior, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke. The Steelers also struggle more than expected with the injuries to Hampton and running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee surgery in January). It's tough to win in one of the top divisions in football when you're not at full strength.

The key to any Steelers season is the health of Roethlisberger. While the Steelers' offensive line has the potential to rank among the best, this year could be a transitional one as well. Roethlisberger could take a good number of hits behind a line that starts two rookies and moves tackle Willie Colon to guard. Losing Roethlisberger will result in a losing season. Pittsburgh would then have to depend more on a running game without Mendenhall. Isaac Redman has shown flashes, but he is a question mark as a featured back.

Defensively, the run defense becomes vulnerable in the middle with the injury to Hampton and the loss of Farrior. Hampton starts the season on the physically unable to perform list and Steve McLendon and rookie Alameda Ta'amu can't fill the void. The pass defense takes a step back if one of the young cornerbacks (Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown) can't replace William Gay.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Titans in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): Jake Locker beats out Matt Hasselbeck in the training camp quarterback battle and never looks back. The second-year signal-caller provides huge energy for the Titans, alleviating concerns about his accuracy. He spreads the ball around to a nice stable if receivers, including Kenny Britt, who’s healthy all season, Nate Washington, who matches last year’s effort, and Kendall Wright, who catches on quickly and doesn’t look like a rookie.

With a running quarterback under center and all those receivers helping stretch the field, Chris Johnson gets room and has a big rebound year. Defenses have to decide: Stack the box and risk yielding big passes or keep numbers in coverage and see CJ break off chunks.

The pass rush fares far better than last season because Kamerion Wimbley proves to be a great signing -- one that's made even more so because the offense gives Tennessee leads that make opponents one-dimensional.

Mike Munchak is a coach of the year candidate in line for an extension as he takes the Titans to the playoffs.

Nightmare scenario (5-11): They head into camp thinking they have two quarterbacks, but wind up with one getting hurt and the other struggling. Britt’s not healthy, Wright’s not effective and Johnson doesn’t rebound from last year, prompting speculation that his time as playmaker has past.

With inconsistent offense and not a lot of points, too much falls on the defense.

Teams get them in nickel and attack the guy in the slot. The Titans roll through several options there and none of them prove nearly as effective as Cortland Finnegan was. Derrick Morgan can’t mount the healthy and productive pass-rush campaign the team was banking on and Wimbley is also unable to lead any sort of consistent charge at opposing quarterbacks.

The Titans finish the year talking about how much better Locker will be in 2013. They also enter an uncertain time with Munchak and his staff, which head into the final year of their contracts not having shown they warrant extensions.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it's never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Dolphins in 2012.

Dream scenario (9-7): So much has to go right for the Dolphins to have a winning season in 2012. For example, one of the quarterbacks -- Matt Moore, David Garrard or rookie Ryan Tannehill -- will have to step up and have a stellar season. An unproven group of receivers must play above their talent level. Rookie head coach Joe Philbin has to push all the right buttons in his first year, and the defense must make a smooth transition to the 4-3. The chance of all these things falling perfectly in place for Miami is slim. But if it does, Miami could string together some wins in the AFC East and have a respectable season. Can the Dolphins carry over late momentum they gathered at the end of last season? Miami was 6-3 in its last nine games. But that was with a different coaching staff and different schemes. The Dolphins are not very talented, but they are a tough group. They could make it hard on a lot of opponents, and perhaps steal more wins than people expect.

Nightmare scenario (2-14): Miami is in the process of rebuilding. There's always an element of danger in that teams can fall apart and lose confidence when they’re not in contention. I think the Dolphins are probably a five- or six-win team next season. They could win a few games with their tough defense alone. But if nothing goes right and things fall apart, the worst-case scenario could be an ugly two-win season. The offense is a rough project. The Dolphins are installing a new West Coast offense and don't have the receivers to make it run smoothly. The biggest key is quarterback. If Moore and Garrard both struggle or get hurt, the Dolphins have no shot. It could also lead to Miami playing its first-round pick too soon. Tannehill could find himself leading a bad team before he’s ready. Think of what happened to Blaine Gabbert last season. That’s a nightmare the Dolphins want to avoid.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Chargers in 2012.

Dream scenario (10-6): Although Philip Rivers had a very down 2011 by his fantastic track record, the Chargers still threw the ball effectively and should once again in 2012. Even though Vincent Jackson is in Tampa Bay, Antonio Gates is healthy and San Diego has enough at the wide receiver, including better slot options, to allow for Rivers to do what Rivers does best: sling it all over the field, especially deep. San Diego does look to be noticeably improved in the front seven. That could pay off huge in terms of improvement against the run and pass as well as generating more big plays. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Melvin Ingram ends up being the defensive rookie of the year as a versatile and explosive difference-maker. I am still a huge fan of Rivers and I believe that Ryan Mathews can be an elite running back to mix in with a noticeably improved defense. But what is the ceiling if all of this comes together? A divisional crown certainly is a possibility, but I still think San Diego -- even if everything goes right -- would still be a step below the very top teams in the NFL.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): What if Mathews gets hurt? In a dream scenario, Mathews could have as strong of a season as any running back in the NFL. But his injury history is very troubling, the Chargers have very little behind him and their offensive line ranks among the worst in the league right now. The offensive line could be the downfall of the entire team and could easily lead to injuries to the Chargers’ most important players, Rivers and Mathews. And Rivers must cut down on the interceptions. Also, how much do we really trust Gates to return to his previously amazing form for an entire season? And remember, the defense did take a big step backward last year and it wasn’t all that long ago that the Chargers were unbelievably awful on special teams. What if glimmers of that ineptitude resurface? The worst-case scenario of 6-10 wouldn’t bode well for Norv Turner’s job.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Texans in 2012.

Dream scenario (12-4): Quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson return from injuries and have exemplary seasons, providing big plays that sync up beautifully with another excellent campaign by running back Arian Foster. New starters at right guard and right tackle take over and play well and the offensive line continues to be a team strength, providing time for Schaub and room for Foster. They show it’s about the scheme and players with the traits that fit it, not necessarily about the specific people in the lineup.

In conjunction with the excellent offense, Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense picks up where it left off, swarming opposing quarterbacks and finding big plays that tamp down offenses just about every week.

This talented, deep squad does not get caught up in success and shows it can stand toe-to-toe with teams like the Packers and Patriots. In so doing, the Texans give Houston something it’s never had before: a Super Bowl team.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Schaub either can’t stay healthy or can’t return to form and he or T.J. Yates winds up throwing more to rookie receivers who struggle than to Johnson, who battles another round of leg injuries. The right side of the offensive line proves a huge issue as the team loses any hint of the cohesion that was such a key in 2011. That means trouble for Foster as well, and he doesn’t break through to the second level nearly as often as we’ve become accustomed to.

Defensively, the Texans can’t generate the kind of consistent pass rush they mounted last season as offenses do a better job countering than they did in Phillips’ first season heading up the 3-4. The secondary is asked to hold up too long and an injury to Johnathan Joseph leaves them susceptible at cornerback, the one spot where they lack depth. Opposing quarterbacks find too many big plays against them.

The return games are worse, not better, with Jacoby Jones now playing in Baltimore.

A nearly unanimous pick to win the AFC South before the season, the Texans fail to make the playoffs.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Jaguars in 2012.

Dream scenario (10-6): Mike Mularkey’s offensive scheme does for Blaine Gabbert what it did early on for Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Gabbert silences his stable of critics, playing with a newfound poise and confidence and finding himself in situations where he’s comfortable and can show off the arm that was a big reason he was a top 10 pick.

The second-year quarterback is well-protected as he works his way through progressions and spreads the ball around to a much-improved receiving corps headed by Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon. With the passing offense faring far better, Maurice Jones-Drew's hammer hits even harder because his carries are less predictable.

Defensively, the team is healthy all season long in karmic payback for last year’s slew of injuries.

Defensive tackles Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton put it all together with middle linebacker Paul Posluszny playing great behind them, and no one can even ponder running up the middle against the Jaguars. Rookie second-rounder Andre Branch provides a serious boost to the pass rush and the linebackers get involved in pressuring the quarterback. When they don’t get a sufficient push, the coverage holds up.

And rookie punter Bryan Anger regularly hits bombs and pins teams deep, semi-justifying his third-round draft status.

Mularkey wins coach of the year as the Jaguars qualify for the playoffs.

Nightmare scenario (4-12): New coaches, a new system and new receivers don’t make for a new Gabbert, and he struggles in his second season much as he did as a rookie. A rough start means the fan base calls for backup Chad Henne, and Mularkey finds himself in a tough spot with a quick quarterback controversy.

Henne eventually gets the call but doesn’t play much better, so the team is over-reliant on the run game. The defense, meanwhile, can’t overcome the lack of a pass rush. It gives up too many passing yards and too many big plays because quarterbacks have time to wait for targets to break open. Then the Jaguars begin to blitz more to amp things up, but pay a price by giving up big plays out of high risk, high-reward situations.

Owner Shahid Khan, used to life as a businessman who wins, says or does something controversial that makes things even messier. The Jaguars actually finish a game worse than they did in Jack Del Rio’s final season, leaving Denver’s defensive coordinator shrugging and people removing some responsibility for 2011 from him.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Ravens in 2012.

Dream scenario (13-3): The Ravens come back more motivated after falling a couple of plays short of getting to the Super Bowl. Baltimore takes care of its biggest distractions before the season by signing quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice to long-term deals. The Ravens go on to produce the best record in the AFC and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Flacco backs up his claim of being an elite quarterback and finally takes control of the offense. He has a reputation makeover similar to the one Eli Manning had. Flacco gets help in the passing game with wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Ed Dickson, who stretch the field even more in their second seasons as starters. Rookie second-round pick Kelechi Osemele is able to make the transition from college tackle to left guard, which is the biggest question mark on the Ravens' offensive line.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs gives the defense a big boost when the NFL's reigning defensive player of the year is able to return in early November from an Achilles injury. Rookie second-round pick Courtney Upshaw steps up to replace Jarret Johnson as the team's edge setter on run defense. And Baltimore shuts down some of the best wide receivers in the NFL with the league's most impressive pair of cornerbacks in Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Baltimore can't shake the crushing loss in the AFC Championship Game and fails to make the playoffs for the first time in the John Harbaugh era. The injury to Suggs is too tough to overcome, and Rice isn't the same player after skipping offseason workouts and training camp. Not being at the top of their game hurts the Ravens, who have the fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL.

The offensive line shows some cracks with declining left tackle Bryant McKinnie and overhyped right tackle Michael Oher. Center Matt Birk begins to show his age (he turns 36 in July), and Baltimore fails to adequately replace Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs. The lack of consistency up front puts more pressure on Flacco, who is forced to rush and throws more interceptions than he has in the past. Anquan Boldin watches his receptions decrease for a third straight season, and Torrey Smith drops more deep passes than he catches.

Defensively, Suggs is able to return late in the season but he doesn't have the explosiveness to be effective. The Ravens drop out of the top 10 in defense for the first time since 2002 because Paul Kruger can't replace Suggs, Ray Lewis' play slows down with his age (he's 37) and Ed Reed stays in a funk because he's unhappy with his contract.

Bills: Dream/nightmare scenarios

May, 24, 2012
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Buffalo Bills in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): It would be a dream for Bills fans to see their team back in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. The last time we saw Buffalo make the postseason, the Bills were the victim of the “Music City Miracle” in 1999. It has been a long line of disappointments and underachieving since that historic play. (Many Bills fans still contend that was a forward pass, by the way.) This year’s team looks poised to break the streak. This is the best team, on paper, that Buffalo has had in a long time. The offense will be dangerous if quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick improves his consistency in the passing game and Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller and the running game stay consistent. Buffalo also made improvements to the defense, including drafting corner Stephon Gilmore in the first round and adding stud defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. Chances are, everything won’t fall into place for Buffalo. But this is a sleeper team that does have a chance to make a jump and contend for the playoffs.

Nightmare scenario (5-11): Despite all the additions, there is no guarantee the Bills and their coaching staff can bring it all together in one year. What if Fitzpatrick continues to play like the second half of 2011 and is not the long-term solution? What if the defense struggles to make the transition to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt? What if big injuries again decimate this team? A lot can go wrong for the Bills, especially in a division where the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots are expected to dominate. The Bills are trying to catch up and cannot afford to make many mistakes in the AFC East. They were 1-5 against division foes last year. Bills head coach Chan Gailey is only 10-22 in his first two years in Buffalo. He has more talent than he has ever had with the Bills. There are no excuses for Gailey this year. It’s still somewhat of a mystery whether Gailey can coach. But we will find out in 2012.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Colts in 2012.

Dream scenario (8-8): I consider this a pretty optimistic dream, but since we’re dreaming …

This one would require exemplary rookie seasons from quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and at least a few others from the new regime’s first class.

But beyond that, they’ll need several guys from the old regime to play far better in a new system than they did in the old one for which they were better suited.

Donald Brown or Delone Carter will have to run effectively, for example. From a pool of returning cornerbacks including Chris Rucker, Kevin Thomas, Terrence Johnson and Brandon King, they need to find at least a nickel, and that presumes the guy they just traded for, Cassius Vaughn, will be the second starter. (If I am playing against the Colts, with that collection of defensive backs, I’m trying to get them in dime.)

Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis prove to be pass-rushing demons as outside linebackers in a 3-4 base set, where they are coming from less predictable spots and forcing quarterbacks into all kind of mistakes. Their play offsets the questions at other spots for the defense, and helps set Luck and the offense up with good field position.

Nightmare scenario (2-14): Yes, it’s possible the first year of the Ryan Grigson-Chuck Pagano regime matches the last year of the Bill Polian-Jim Caldwell one.

The Colts will face Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler in 2012. But if things go badly, plenty of second- and third-tier quarterbacks will also shred a patchwork secondary that added only safety Tom Zbikowski in free agency and Vaughn in a trade and got no help in the draft.

The defense can prove to have too few quality pieces to run a 3-4 or a 4-3 effectively, and if it’s giving up a lot of points, Luck will be dropping back a lot to try to lead comebacks. If a line of leftovers and castoffs can’t consistently fend off rushers, there will be trouble.

And should Luck get hurt and miss any time, the team will look to Drew Stanton or seventh-round pick Chandler Harnish. Either one is likely to leave fans pining for the halcyon days of Dan Orlovsky.

Also damaging would be the Texans ability to stay good and improvements from Tennessee and Jacksonville. The Colts got their two wins last season against the Titans and Texans late in the year.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Browns in 2012.

Dream scenario (8-8): The Browns reap the rewards of a third straight successful draft and produce their first non-losing season since 2007. Team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert are vindicated for making the right moves, and head coach Pat Shurmur shows what he can do when he has a full offseason with a team. While this isn't a playoff team yet, this season proves that the team is headed in the right direction.

First-round running back Trent Richardson becomes the centerpiece of the Browns' offense, providing a tough and mean attitude. He lives up to expectations of being the No. 3 overall pick and is the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. First-round pick Brandon Weeden makes an immediate impact with his big arm, convincing everyone that he is a franchise quarterback. He is also the mature leader that the offense needs.

On defense, tackle Phil Taylor returns earlier than expected from his pectoral muscle injury and misses only a handful of games. Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson proves he's worth his new five-year, $42.5 million deal and leads the NFL in tackles. Linebacker Scott Fujita wins the appeal of his three-game suspension from the Saints' bounty scandal and starts the season opener. The addition of defensive end Frostee Rucker significantly improves a run defense that ranked 30th in the NFL last season.

Nightmare scenario (3-13): The Browns hit rock bottom, struggling against the NFL's third-toughest schedule. The hot seat is scorching for Shumur, and there are constant questions whether Holmgren and Heckert will be around when the Browns select first in the 2013 draft.

The biggest problem is a lack of playmakers on offense. Richardson is a physical runner but he can't break tackle after tackle. Defenses load the box with eight and nine players because they don't fear any of the wide receivers. Greg Little continues to drop passes and Mohamed Massaquoi continues to underachieve. Rookie Travis Benjamin brings speed but doesn't have the size to get off the line. That is all compounded by Weeden making too many mistakes when pressured, which was the knock on him coming out of college.

The defense's biggest weakness -- run defense -- gets exploited even more when Taylor takes longer than expected to recover. Rookie defensive linemen John Hughes and Billy Winn play like rookies in trying to replace him. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard isn't as disruptive as he was as a rookie, and Rucker is a disappointment as the team's top free-agent signing.

Jets: Dream/nightmare scenarios

May, 24, 2012
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Jets in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): Everything comes together and the Jets set themselves up for another playoff run. Much of this comes down to starting quarterback Mark Sanchez, who must have a bounce-back year in order keep his job and fend off backup Tim Tebow. If Sanchez throws well, Tebow can effectively stay in his role as the Wildcat quarterback and things could run smoothly for New York’s offense. The defense will be fine. The Jets finished fifth last year in total defense, and that was despite their offense's inability to sustain time-consuming drives. New York has the talent to be a playoff team. But chemistry and quarterback issues remain. The Jets also would need a their division rivals, especially the New England Patriots, to have a down year. The Jets were 3-3 against the AFC East last year and need to improve that mark to get a playoff spot and perhaps a division title in 2012.

Nightmare scenario (5-11): If things fall apart, this has the potential to be the worst year of the Rex Ryan era. The Jets haven't had a losing season under Ryan. But with so many questions, this is very much a boom-or-bust season. New York has locker room issues, a quarterback controversy and a brutal first five games that could set a bad tone for the year. If the Jets start 1-4 or 2-3, can this team stay together enough to pull out of it? That wasn’t the case a year ago and probably won't be the case this year. The Jets have a lot to prove both on the field and in the locker room. There are a lot of combustible personalities on the team, and New York proved last year that things can implode quickly from within. It also doesn't help that the Jets are under the biggest media spotlight in New York. If Tebow is the starting quarterback at some point next season, that means something went wrong. Tebow could take over Sanchez's starting job either because of poor performance or injury. Neither scenario would be good.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Raiders in 2012.

Dream scenario (9-7): Maybe the Raiders get the Carson Palmer whom the last staff envisioned, and he regains his form from years ago. Although the tight end position is a nightmare, Oakland’s core of young wide receivers could burst onto the scene this season. Denarius Moore could be a superstar, and Juron Criner could be an ideal complement. Switching schemes can be dicey, but the Raiders’ offensive line looks better off in going to a zone-blocking scheme, and should be especially improved on the interior. Oakland also absolutely must cut down on penalties, and drastically reducing such mistakes seems like a reasonable and reachable goal. Also, only four teams threw more interceptions than the Raiders last season. Reducing picks along with having a exceptional pair of kicking specialists could greatly aid Oakland in winning the hidden-yardage battle.

Nightmare scenario (4-12): The Raiders have poor depth. They are also breaking in a new head coach and new schemes. As the season goes along, their depth will surely be tested -- and I don’t expect it to respond kindly. Oakland absolutely needs Darren McFadden to stay healthy this season. Of course, that has been a problem for its spectacular running back. When healthy, few in this league produce like McFadden, but the right tackle position looks like a trouble area. There also could be a drop-off coming on defense. The defensive line overall is strong, but where are the top edge pass-rushers and top cover men? In a passing league, that is a massive problem in my eyes. The best I can forecast for Oakland is to have great luck with injuries and sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card team, while their nightmare scenario could be selecting in the top five of next year’s draft.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Chiefs in 2012.

Dream scenario (10-6): Kansas City’s roster is much stronger than it was in 2011, when the Chiefs were riddled with key injuries. Kansas City lost franchise building blocks like Eric Berry, Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki very early. If such young players can return to where they were pre-injury to go along with an extremely strong offseason for Kansas City, this roster could be one of the most talented and deepest in the NFL. Despite a gaping hole at right tackle, the Chiefs’ pass blocking was pretty strong in 2011, but the run blocking was suspect. Kansas City has upgraded dramatically at that spot with the addition of Eric Winston, so expect the front five to excel this season. Another area where Kansas City could rather easily improve is on special teams, where overall they struggled quite a bit in 2011. Based on last year’s opponents’ winning percentage, the Chiefs have the easiest schedule in the AFC West by a narrow margin over Oakland. To me, the Chiefs ceiling this year is winning the division and maybe a playoff game or two.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): When discussing the Chiefs’ roster, which overall I am very high on, I failed to mention the quarterback position. Matt Cassel is not a bad quarterback, but he certainly isn’t a difference-maker either. In fact, Kansas City is possibly the weakest team in the AFC West at the most important position on the field -- although a case could be made for the Raiders for that distinction. Also, there is little behind Cassel if he should fall to injury, as he did a year ago. That in itself puts a low ceiling on what this team might be able to ultimately accomplish in 2012. Also, will those young talents return to past form after injury? Will Dontari Poe be a difference-maker in his first NFL season? Although I don’t see the Chiefs’ ceiling being as high as Denver’s, I also think their floor is in the 7-9 range unless utter disaster strikes again.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Patriots in 2012.

Dream scenario (15-1): The Patriots take advantage of the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL on their way to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Barring injury, it's hard not to see New England winning at least 11 or 12 games this year. Note the dream scenario is 15-1, not 16-0. The pressure of going into the playoffs undefeated is immense. New England found out the hard way after the 2007 season, when they came up just short in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. It would be easier for New England to get that loss out of the way early so the pressure of a perfect season won't be on their shoulders late in the year. The AFC East looks ripe for the Patriots once again. They went 5-1 against the division in 2011, which is key to winning the AFC East and vying for home-field advantage in the AFC.

Nightmare scenario (9-7): Is 9-7 really a nightmare? Not for most teams. But it's Super Bowl or bust for New England, and a nine-win season with the chance to miss the playoffs is probably the worst this team could do considering its talent and easy schedule. Significant injuries are the only thing I can see derailing the Patriots from another playoff run. Quarterback Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2008 and New England still finished 11-5. But this is a different team, especially on defense. A significant injury to Brady, especially early in the season, would be a nightmare and make the Patriots an ordinary team again. I'm not convinced this team is good enough, especially defensively, to hold up like it did a few years ago without its future Hall of Fame quarterback. Also, who knows if Ryan Mallett or Brian Hoyer is good enough to lead the charge? Maybe in time, but the Patriots don't want to find out next season.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Bengals in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): The Bengals end their three-decade-long streak of inconsistency and put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1981-82. Cincinnati wins its second division title in four years and hosts a playoff game at a sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.

The offense takes another step forward in coordinator Jay Gruden's second season. A.J. Green becomes a top-five receiver in the NFL and turns in a Calvin Johnson-like season (Johnson produced 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns in his second season). Wide receiver Brandon Tate and rookie third-round pick Mohamed Sanu make surprising impacts and fill the void left by Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. The running game goes from plodding to productive with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and two new run-blocking guards in veteran Travelle Wharton and first-round pick Kevin Zeitler.

The defense remains a top-10 one in the NFL and avoids a second-half swoon like last season. Rey Maualuga becomes a force in the middle now that he is healthy and adjusted to playing inside linebacker again. Cornerback Leon Hall is able to start the season after making a full recovery from last season's Achilles injury. The rest of the cornerbacks (Adam Jones, Jason Allen and Terence Newman) show they still have first-round talent. Safety Reggie Nelson lives up to his new four-year, $18 million contract.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): New players, same result. Even with an influx of young talent, the Bengals once again show they can't follow up a successful season, which crushes the momentum built from last year's surprising playoff season and productive offseason. This would follow the Bengals' pattern. Cincinnati had a four-win season after the last time it had gone to the playoffs in 2009.

Quarterback Andy Dalton suffers from a sophomore slump and regresses after defenses have had a full offseason to dissect him. Green also can't put up the same numbers from a year ago, although it's not his fault. Defenses clamp down on him because the Bengals don't have anyone to step up to become the No. 2 wide receiver. Green-Ellis, who averaged 3.7 yards per carry, doesn't upgrade the running back position over Cedric Benson.

Defensively, the Bengals start the season without Maualuga, who receives a suspension for violating the personal conduct policy. Hall doesn't heal as fast as expected and begins the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, meaning he misses the first six weeks of the season. His replacements prove to be either too old (Jones, Allen and Newman) or too young (first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick). New starting safety Taylor Mays becomes a liability in pass coverage.